"Zola" film poster.
Credit: "Zola" film/Fair Use / A24

Sex workers are ubiquitous in pop culture, and while this year was no exception, what made it a defining moment was that sex workers themselves did the majority of image making as opposed to being imagined by others. 

In 2015, a Twitter thread went viral. Zola, a Black, Detroit area stripper, told the story of a strip trip with a new friend, a pretty white girl with a big smile and problematic partial cornrows named Stefani. Things go sideways — tricked into human trafficking kind of sideways. At times hilarious, at times tragic, always intriguing, the famous thread was picked up by writer and director Janicza Bravo and Zola, the author, became Zola, the executive producer (she even negotiated for a percentage of the movie’s profit, which is quite the feat for a new author).  

In contrast, Hustlers — the last big movie about strippers — was based on an article written about strippers, not by them. This came through in the way production treated the real-life strippers whose careers they were imitating. Sure, the production hired Jacq the Stripper as a stripper consultant, but at the same time, the production shut down the strip club they were filming in for a week and didn’t compensate the strippers they put out of work. Jennifer Lopez learned a pole routine for the film and tried to learn about the craft from working strippers by coming to the club and asking them questions. What she failed to do was pay them for their time. 

There is a lot of beautiful imagery in the film Zola. It begins when Zola, at her waitressing job, meets Stefani. They click instantly, confide in each other that they are both dancers, harps begin to play, a giant heart comes on screen, and the magical realism begins. But as they arrive in Florida, they come across a giant cross on the side of the road followed closely by a confederate flag. America’s grim reality is unforgiving; Zola is alone in a hostile place.

She and Stefani get hired in a club. “Who do you want to be?” Zola asks herself while getting ready. She is alone in a room of mirrors; there are five of her. She tries on various costumes to decide, each outfit a different promise of the feminine ideal. In reality, she is in the club changing room, the atmosphere is hopeful and boisterous, the women working there build each other up and pray god sends them rich men. 

There is so much truth in this portrayal of ritual. The changing room is a place where ordinary women metamorphosize together through beautification and an unironic adherence to the magical thinking that positive thoughts bring abundance. There is an element of magical realism in the performance of hyper-femininity through an alter ego and Zola’s film conveys this better than any other.

In stark contrast to a story told by and about strippers is the Lil Nas X music video for his song Call Me by Your Name. The video is groundbreaking in its portrayal of a queer Black man seducing the devil himself with a stage performance and lap dance, the aim of which is to kill and replace the devil. It is a celebration of transgressive queer sexuality and on the surface, is pro-sex work. As part of the marketing for the song and music video, Lil Nas X announced a contest for the best pole dancing performance with a ten thousand dollar reward. 

Strippers uploaded videos en masse, hoping that, like the contest for the shooting of the City Girls and Cardi B video Twerk Island, this would put them on the path for mainstream success. While the contest did give its participants more visibility, it backfired when many strippers were de-platformed from Tik Tok and Instagram — most notably, @SpinninShaee, arguably one of the best performers in America. 

To add insult to injury, none of the finalists Lil Nas selected were working strippers. Rather, he chose pole performers who spend a lot of time and energy profiting from the art strippers perfected, while sharing none of the stigma that comes with the job. In short, a man profited by appropriating stripper culture, while actively excluding strippers from sharing in the profits and artistic credibility of the work.

Coming back to strippers as artists and tellers of their own tales: former strippers Cardi B, Megan the Stallion and City Girls all had hit singles this summer. They continue to uplift their communities, and continue to inspire working strippers in both their hustle and their artistic pursuits. In Lizzo’s video for her song Rumors, Cardi — pregnant and Madonna-like — shows us that you can be very pregnant, very sexy and very proud of where you came from (also Lizzo rocks in the video!). Megan champions working Black women, much to the chagrin of a misogynistic Senator. City Girls remind us that nothing is more powerful than sex workers’ unabashed celebration of self, through a metaphor of giant butts as Godzilla style destroyers of worlds. It’s all very “fuck the patriarchy” and “fuck capitalism,” but as long as they’re both still here, we might as well profit off of selling a fantasy of a woman unencumbered by the traditional expectation of being verbally and sexually meek.

While we celebrate sex worker celebrities who have crossed over to mainstream success, it’s important to remember that the reality for most sex workers during the pandemic has been bleak. Between COVID lockdowns, sex workers have had some difficult choices to make. Many had a hard time getting government relief, strip clubs were forced to close, OnlyFans threatened to pull adult content and Pornhub is under attack.

Election after election, parties make promises to put extra funding into Canadian arts and artists, and this recent election was absolutely no exception because the arts sector still hasn’t begun to recover from the pandemic. Let’s hope that the government follows through, and that it includes sex workers like strippers and adjacent performers such as drag queens in its funding scope. 

It’s time that incubators of highly expressive, groundbreaking (and highly profitable!) artists are acknowledged and included in any government plans for revitalizing the Canadian arts sector. It’s time that sex workers were given rights as workers, and given credit for their contribution to art, fashion, music, dance, film and popular culture.

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Natasha Darling

Natasha Darling is a pseudonym to protect the author’s true identity from the stigma and harm associated with her sex work. Darling is a stripper and community organiser based in Toronto. Plant...